William D. Cohan remembers well the first of three interviews at Goldman Sachs. It was early in 1986 and Cohan, a fan of space exploration, was rattled by the explosion of the Challenger shuttle.
When the disaster came up in conversation, the interviewer coolly mentioned the number of profitable trades his desk had made involving companies tied to the cosmic crash.
"That definitely freaked me out," Cohan said. "I wouldn't have had much of a chance going to Goldman anyway."
Cohan didn't get an offer -- not in 1986 and not when he interviewed once again after 15 or so years working at competing investment banks. But he did finally get a good look inside the firm and an interview with the CEO when he did the research for his 658-page tome chronicling the company: "Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World."
The one continuous thread that Cohan found running throughout the firm's 142-year history was people: The firm's ability to attract and hire the best and brightest and its knack for forming those workers into profit machines willing to sacrifice anything -- even their sadness over a national tragedy -- for shareholders and senior partners.
"They have a system," Cohan said. "It's the firm writ large. It's not about the individuals -- not about stars."
We plowed through Cohan's book and then caught up with him to talk about how to get a job and get ahead at one of the world's most coveted employers.
Keep it Clean
It's safe to say the background check at Goldman Sachs is comparable to that of the FBI. The firm employs a cadre of former private investigators and CIA agents in a special unit dubbed the Reputational Risk Dept.
In short, a DUI, a messy divorce or even a shabby grade in economics won't help your case.
"They basically ream, steam and dry clean you," one former Goldman trader told Cohan. "They look into every aspect of your life. ...I was always sort of convinced that they did that to build a dossier on you, so if you ever gave them a problem, they could use it against you."
Cohan described the strategy as "somewhat chilling."
"It certainly seems a little cloak and dagger-y," he explained. "But if you think about it for a little bit, it doesn't seem that crazy."
Don't be Too Smart
While Goldman looks for bright minds, they prefer young phenoms to the worldly wise.
"They want the grey matter, but relatively unformed and malleable," Cohan said. "They don't want people to learn bad habits and they want to be able to teach them 'the Goldman Way,' not someone else's way."
Hurry up and Wait
The Goldman interview process is notoriously lengthy -- round after round, followed by thorough reference checking. The idea, according to Cohan's book, isn't so much to fully vet the candidate, as to test their desire, commitment and ability to keep ego in check.
And those tests don't disappear once a candidate is hired. Cohan wrote of a partner who summoned a group of i-banking greenhorns to a conference room at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. The partner showed up at 10 p.m. and told the group that the waiting had been an exercise in patience and having "the right attitude."
The three rookies who had left early -- all armed with MBAs from top schools -- were fired on Tuesday.
Finish the Week Strong
There's a saying at the firm: "Friday is Goldman Sachs day." The strategy is fairly simple: bankers and traders -- often fighting off hangovers and bolting early for the Hamptons -- let their guards down on Friday.
Cohan's source said: "If you come in on Friday with your head down, intent on actually doing something...that's when you can make a big difference."
Drink the Kool-Aid
'Work hard, play hard' may be the mantra of Wall Street, but 'work hard, work hard' is probably a more accurate description of the Goldman life. "You literally did work one hundred and ten hours per week," a former employee told Cohan. "I'm sure you're making less on an hourly basis at Goldman than you would if you worked at McDonald's."
Another source said the company has a tendency to make all of its big strategic decisions on Sunday. "There were people that just sat in their house for hours and hours and hours and hours over the weekend," the banker said. "I think that those are the people that are going to be successful at Goldman, the folks that are willing to sacrifice all."
Nothing captures that do-or-die culture better than a story -- now legendary at the firm -- centered on former president and co-COO John Thornton. According to Cohan's account, as Thornton pitched a potential client, he said: "If we do not get this mandate, I will personally slit the throats of all my team and drink their blood."
As is often the case, Goldman got the job.
Ask if You May Be Excused
The decision to leave Goldman is not to be taken lightly. Former Chairman John Whitehead learned this early on in his career when he was an assistant to top boss Sidney Weinberg. Whitehead accepted a job to beome partner in a venture capital startup funded by John Hay "Jock" Whitney, one of the country's most affluent men. Upon hearing the news a few hours later, Weinberg immediately phoned Whitney and talked him into rescinding the offer.
"He's too important to me here, and I'm sorry, but I just can't spare him, and that's that," Cohan reported Weinberg saying.
Whitehead was partner by the end of that year, 1956, and retired from Goldman in 1984.
Those who do manage to move on, however, do well to get the blessing of the firm. Goldman has a long record of keeping its alumni close and even turning employees into business partners and clients as they leave the firm to start hedge funds or other businesses.
"When I worked at Lazard, we used to say you can only sell your Lazard pedigree one time and you better make it good," Cohan said. "That's probably the same thing at Goldman Sachs."
Write to Kyle Stock